Probably the best thing you can say about 2016 is that it sets up 2017 to be an awesome improvement no matter what happens. Then again, 2016 itself started on a highly optimistic note, having succeeded the bland 2015 and started with the traditional gala event of the tech calendar that was the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. CES 2016 was the January harbinger of what was to come: we thought it'd be a fresh dose of techno optimism, with a shot or two of smarter cars and homes, but it ended up a distressing series of unhappy events. So let's look back on it! (If only for the sake of closure.)
Laptops promised much, but delivered a great deal less
When we, The Verge's editorial staff, were having our Verge Awards debate for CES 2016, the richest field of candidates was laptops. There were just so many appealing and attractive new options, each one of them thinner than the other, each a little bit sleeker and more refined. We liked Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Yoga a lot, especially with its gorgeous new OLED screen. Then we were charmed by the HP EliteBook Folio, which looked like a very legitimate Windows alternative to Apple's MacBook - only with the added benefit of two USB-C ports rather than just one. Progress, we thought.
My personal highlight from among the bunch was the Razer Blade Stealth, the gaming company's first ever ultrabook, which also capitalized on USB-C's greater bandwidth to introduce an awesome concept: a universally compatible graphics card dock, which would allow mobile gamers to hook up a full-bloodied desktop GPU to their ultraportable laptop. With a pretty, high-resolution display and a handsome matte-black finish, the Blade Stealth promised to be a modular realization of one of the oldest dreams in PC-land: a gaming laptop without performance limitations or enormous size.
Alas, as 2016 ticked on, it became clear that none of our favored laptop heroes would live up to their initial hype. The Blade Stealth suffered from substantial delays to the Razer Core, the GPU dock that made it more than just another ultrabook, and the Core was mightily priced at $499 ($399 when purchased alongside a Razer laptop). Expected around April, it wasn't until the latter half of the year that the Core was properly available, by which point there was already a fresh revision of the Blade Stealth, though even the September update didn't improve the ultrabook's battery life to the point of competing with better alternatives in the ultralight category.
HP's EliteBook Folio turned out to be a case study in the compromises inherent in building such an exceedingly thin machine. Intel's Core M was an inadequate processor for what this 4K laptop was trying to do, and the battery was a letdown too. Together with software issues and a high price tag, these factors combined to make the Folio, the eventual product, a major disappointment relative to the Folio as a CES exhibition item. One trait shared by the EliteBook and Blade Stealth was the absence of an SD card slot - so we can blame these computers for kickstarting the trend that would eventually infect Apple's updated MacBook Pro range later in the year as well.
The ThinkPad X1 Yoga that we coveted at CES offered the fewest unhappy surprises of the bunch. Its OLED display remained a highlight, but it was surrounded by a machine with unsatisfying battery life and a series of smaller issues. With a price tag north of $1,800 just to jump on the OLED bandwagon, the X1 Yoga remained a positive step toward the future of laptops, but not something any of us could feel comfortable recommending as a purchase.
Cars took over the vaporous hype crown
Wanna hear a CES joke? Faraday Future. This Chinese-funded EV company came to steal the show at CES, and it promptly did, but that was mostly through bemusement. It didn't have a car to show, other than a hyper-stylized supercar concept, and it only floated a bunch of visionary promises about our future electric mobility. CES 2017 is supposed to be the stage where Faraday finally unveils something approximating a production vehicle, but the company’s buildup to the show has been calamitous. Executives are leaving, funding is dwindling, and the project that appeared transparently vaporous during CES 2016 seems set to completely fizzle out at some point in 2017.
Audi contributed to the sense of unreality around CES autos with its VR car configuration experience. To be fair, that looks like a very compelling application of virtual reality — having people soak up the most realistic visuals of their anticipated future car — though it’s destined for a rather small audience in high-end auto showrooms. For now at least, the VR experience of designing your own Audi is a niche utility for a small group of moneyed individuals. The positive way to look at this, though, is that these VR additions to the acts of purchasing and owning a car seem destined to grow in number and availability. So while this is another example of ephemeral autos, at least it’s a good one.
The biggest exception to the downbeat notes coming out of CES 2016 has been Chevy’s Bolt. It took The Verge’s Best in Show award by combining affordability with practicality and long range — it’s the closest we’ve yet come to a hassle-free electric vehicle that can truly replace the traditional everyday petrol guzzler. Mind you, the jury’s still out on the Bolt, whose first delivery only just arrived in December 2016, and a full national rollout across the United States won’t happen until the middle of 2017.
Wearables failed to answer the "why does this exist?" question
Each and every year at CES, wearable technology has been the court jester of the show. Whether it’s clunky plastic 3D glasses, (bad) Android smartphones transmogrified into enormous Android smartwatches, or a billion of dubious fitness and health-tracking gadgets, you can rest assured the clowniest products will be wearable. The best we could muster during CES 2016 was a roundup of wearables that aren’t ugly.
Most trends in 2016 were moves away from wearables. As good as GoPro’s adventure cameras were, it turned out that there weren’t all that many extreme-action enthusiasts, and so the undisputed leader in a nascent category — with an undoubtedly good product — found itself floundering financially. Nikon arrived at CES 2016 with its own action camera, the KeyMission 360, but that spent most of the year as just a promise, and it was only in September that the company announced a price: $499. Let’s just say that the category of wearable action cams isn’t set to grow dramatically anytime soon.
The typical CES fodder of weird stuff like EEG headsets was also apparent, but the biggest subset of wearables was the wrist-worn fitness tracker. We most liked the Misfit Ray, primarily because it was stylish enough to be worn without embarrassment, however a major hurdle still holds most other wrist gadgets back. Battery life. The smaller and more elegant a piece of technology becomes, the less space it has to fit a battery on the inside, and our findings from CES 2016 confirmed that this universal rule wasn’t being broken. Until we figure out even more exceptionally power-efficient technology, or one of those magical battery breakthroughs that we keep waiting for, wearables will remain compromised.
It wasn’t all terrible
Just like 2016, CES wasn’t a simple black canvas of despair. On the TV front, OLED and HDR technologies stepped forth as the confirmed standards of our future, higher-fidelity visual delights. Netflix announced a major expansion. LG rolled out a rollable display that portends well for our more distant future. Failed mobile operating systems found a new home on TVs, truly wireless earbuds got a year of growth and improvement started on a positive note, and the weird fridges that make life worth living were back in vogue.
CES is still the destination to visit when you want to let your imagination about the future of technology run wild, and even as the number of successful commercial products coming out of it remains low, the auguries about where the industry is headed are always there to be found. Here’s hoping 2017 can retain the weird and fantastical edge while delivering a few more products that we can, and actually want to, buy.